From a Mondegreen to a Green Hill


A mondegreen results from mishearing something said or sung. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954. As a child her mom read to her a poem that ended "They hae slain the Earl O Moray/ And laid him on the green." She heard, "They hae slain the Earl O Moray/ And Lady Mondegreen" ( Other mondegreens are "very close veins" instead of varicose veins, and "Hosea can you see" instead of "O say can you see." The number one mondegreen sparked this sermon title. It comes from the hymn "Gladly the cross I bear," but many hear "Gladys the cross-eyed bear." I want to undo some mondegreens of bearing the cross by taking you to a green hill not so far away.

Cross bearing is an imperative. Jesus uses 3 imperatives in a row. "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and he must take up his cross daily and he must follow Me." Self-denial is not an option. But think how not only improbable but impossible self-denial is in a world that exalts the self; that attaches no embarrassment to adults needing "me time;" where men have their toys, and self-indulgence is used as the motive for giving.

Cross bearing is an imperative daily. Jesus doesn't just say if you're going to follow Him you must take up your cross. No He says it must be done daily, not "daily" as in "daily bread" but every day with the emphasis on "every." Cross bearing is not a when-you-feel-like it thing, but an everyday thing. In fact, you're not bearing a "cross" if you feel like doing it, are you?

Cross bearing is a daily imperative, and it must be done following Jesus. You're not bearing a cross if you're following your need to be a martyr. You're not bearing a cross if it's self-inflicted, self-chosen, self-gratifying. You're not bearing a cross if you say, "Weep for me everyone," rather than as Jesus did when bearing His, "Weep not for Me."

You'd better leave now if you were hoping to leave feeling like you can or do bear the cross, because it's about to get harder still. Not from me but from the internet. Here's two mondegreens about cross bearing that misunderstand some aspect of it. That's the trouble with mondegreens; they sound right, but lead you astray.

The first I've shared with you before. A man complains about the weight of his cross and demands God let him choose his own. God puts him in a room with every shape, size, and weight of cross. The man looks and looks till he finds the smallest one he can and says, "I'll take this one Lord." "My son," the Lord gently says, "That's bigger than the one you came in with."

Mondegreen number 2 is along the same lines. We see a man carrying his cross with other cross bearers in the background. He too asks the Lord to make his cross smaller. Several times the Lord consents to allow the man to cut inches off his cross. Onward this cross bearer goes till he finds a deep ditch across the path. He doesn't know what to do. All the other cross bearers pass by, drop their crosses across the ditch, and easily walk across. The man with the shortened cross tries his. It's too short! He can't cross the gap! He's left behind! He hangs his head in despair.

There's truth in both stories: the cross the Lord puts on us is lighter than we think and it serves a greater purpose than we know, but do these stories help you bear your cross? Yes, as long as the truth these common sense mondegreens contain outweigh the cross you feel, you'll be motivated to press on. But this is not divine motivation; it's human. It's not the power of the Gospel of God but the power of wanting the blessing that the Law promises if kept. These stories recognize cross bearing as a divine must and show you why you ought to trust God and do it, but there's no power here.

Imperatives tell you what you must and ought to do, but they never give you power to do it. I can order, command, demand, insist you pick up a 500 pound weight and all my commanding, demanding and insisting will give you no strength to do it. Cross bearing in an imperative but the strength to bear our cross is based on Jesus' passives. Before Jesus talks about what we must do, He tells us what He will suffer.

Jesus, perfect Son of the Father from eternity and perfect Man born of the Virgin Mary in time, was rejected by God and man and judged worthy of death. This word for reject means to reject after testing like in the westerns when the cowboy bites the coin to make sure it's not gold covered wood. Get the point? Both God and mankind put God the Son in the balance of the scales of justice and found Him wanting, lacking, guilty. How can that be? Mankind rejected their God in unbelief. He didn't meet our standards. He gave crosses out the wrong size, length, and weight. God the Father rejected Him because Jesus willing took on all my sins, your sins, our sins.

You disgust Me said the Father to the perfect Son, and off He went to that green hill I mentioned earlier. It seems like every Wednesday for 8 years of Lutheran school we sang the hymn "There is a Green Hill Far Away." It's not a great hymn but as a child it brought home to me that on that green hill Jesus "died to save us all." "Died that we might be forgiven."

In our text Jesus says, "He must be killed." Killed is passive. Had not Jesus gave up His life no one could have taken it. Whips, thorns, nails could not have pierced the flesh that is God's unless God allowed it. The Man who is life could not die unless He willingly gave life up. And that's what Jesus did on that green hill that's not so far away but very close: in that font, in these Words, and in that Bread and Wine.

The fourth verse of There is a Green Hill Far Away says, "There was no other good enough/ To pay the price of sin, / He could only unlock the gate/ Of heaven and let us in." Only a flesh and blood Man could open heaven's gate to flesh and blood men. After living the perfect life you can't, after bearing His cross and yours too without complaint, He died the death you deserve to satisfy the wrath you know God has against you for your sins. God's wrath was satisfied so on Easter He raised the flesh and blood of Jesus, our flesh and blood, to show He accepted Jesus' holy life in place of your unholy one and His guilty death in place of yours.

Jesus succeeded in redeeming flesh and blood, while freeing you from slavery to your sinful nature. He was able to do what you and I can't do. Make a distinction between what God did not create, sinful nature, and the flesh and blood, body and soul He did. Because we know God can make this distinction we see cross bearing as an indication of God's grace to us.

The cross the Lord Jesus lays upon us whether it is poor health, old age, a bad job, a difficult marriage, an impossible child, or unfair parents are there by Jesus' grace to subdue the sinful nature that would run off with us to hell. The cross is like the illusive perfect chemotherapy. It is able to kill only the cancer of sinful nature and not the faith, hope, and joy of the new man. If our fallen nature that never does and never can fear, love, or trust in God had its way with us, like a wild horse it would run off the cliff of hell with us on it even as demons drowned the pigs they were in and sought to the kill the bodies they possessed. The cross slows our sinful nature down even as bit and bridle do a wild horse that can't be rode.

The cross helps us distinguish the new creation that is created after Christ in true righteousness and the old man that is not. That part of us that is frustrated, champs against the bit, and seeks to slip the bridle is the old man, the sinful nature. The painful cross wakes us up from the nightmare of always finding ourselves at the center of everything. Think of those horror movies where no matter how the person tries to escape the beast, no matter which way he runs, no matter how far she runs, there he is. The beast is me, myself, and I.

The cross lets me isolate the beast. The part that is complaining about the cross, that wants to be free of it, is not what came out of the font, not the new man freed again by Absolution, not the holy one fed some more by the Body and Blood of Jesus. When King Louis XII of France was still duke of Orleans his second cousin, Charles VIII, put him in chains and bonds. When Louis ascended the throne in Charles' place he had the chance to get revenge. When tempted to do so he said to himself, "'What does it concern the king of France that the duke of Orleans once suffered disgrace?'" (Narratives on the Catechism, 105-106) Yes, what does the new man care for what is so big and heavy to the old man?

The problem with the mondegreens of cross bearing is they make logical sense out of cross bearing. God gave you a cross of this weight because that's the most you can bear; God gave a cross of this length because you're going to need it to cross some obstacle. But Paul is never told why his cross is not removed other than it is God's grace. Hebrews says the same thing: only those God the Father counts by grace as children are chastised by Him.

Augustine says that what we are doing when we ponder the size, weight, or length of our cross is opening the door of a master craftsman. In a craftsman's shop we will encounter many tools the reason for which we can't comprehend. We will even find tools that hurt us. But being in the presence of an artist we will not dare question what we don't understand. So dare we have the audacity to do this in the case of the tools almighty God in the grace of Christ uses on our life? (Christianity and Classical Culture, 480-1)

The truth is that not only do we dare to, but we will always dare to. As the 3 year old can't help but misunderstand the vaccination needle and the 6 year old the dentist, children of God can't help but misunderstand our crosses. That's why the last thing Jesus says about cross bearing is "follow Me." If you're following Jesus, your eyes can't be on your cross but His. The one on the green hill not the one on your back. Amen.

Reverend Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (20130623); Luke 9: 22-23